The Detroit Lions are getting pretty good at this winning thing.
After rallying to beat the Vikings, 23-20, on Sunday, Detroit is now 3-0 and becoming one of the teams everyone wants to talk about in the NFL. Can the Lions be called a surprise? Probably not, since they were a chic pick by many analysts and pundits going into the season.
But being a promising team is one thing. Actually following through on that promise thus far is worth some excitement.
Going back to last season, the Lions have won seven games in a row. Seven! I'm not adding that for emphasis, so much as to make myself believe that I just typed it. Winning two consecutive games would've been reason enough to get excited not too long ago.
Perhaps even more impressive is that four of those seven wins have come on the road, which was previously a desolate wasteland for this team. Less than a year ago, the Lions were on a 26-game road losing streak. Three years' worth of road games, all losses. You could be excused for thinking that the NFL didn't allow the Lions to win games away from Detroit anymore.
Now, winning on the road doesn't seem to be a big deal.
For those of you who like to complain that there's no such thing as "South Detroit," as mentioned in Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," I dare say that Tampa Bay may indeed be South Detroit. Two trips to Raymond James Stadium in nine months and two victories. If I happen to go to spring training again next February and drive by the Buccaneers' stadium, I might have to plant a Lions flag on the premises.
Then there's Minneapolis, where the Lions hadn't won in their last 13 games at the Metrodome. Scratch that one off the list, too. In watching the Lions and Vikings on Sunday, it was pretty clear that the two teams are moving in different directions.
The Vikings still have some phenomenally talented players, but are at that point where they're not getting much younger. Donovan McNabb looks more like a game-managing quarterback than someone who can win a game anymore. The coaching staff also made several decisions you could question. How did employing single coverage on Calvin Johnson work out? And on a key 4th-and-1 play in the fourth quarter, the offense gives the ball to Toby Gerhart instead of Adrian Peterson?
Maybe that call was understandable. The Lions' defense is probably keying on Peterson, expecting him to get the ball. Gerhart is a power running back and should be able to get a yard. But shouldn't you give the ball to your best player in the game's most important moments? If the Vikings don't get the first down, at least you can say they went with their best guy and it just didn't work out.
But on the other side, the Lions have the kind of quarterback-wide receiver combination that most teams drool over. With Johnson and Matthew Stafford, the hope has been that the two could do great things together if they both stayed healthy. On Sunday, they showed just what they're capable of doing to win games.
Again, some of Johnson's success could perhaps be blamed on the Vikings' not using a second defensive back to cover him. Maybe there was nothing the Vikings could do on Johnson's first score. That was a jump ball that not many defenders are going to win, and the Lions' offense is smart enough to just throw the ball up there and let Johnson get it. But on that second touchdown, how does Johnson get that open at the back of the end zone? How do you lose track of him in such a small space?
Baffling, but it obviously worked out great for Detroit.
It's a tremendous relief to be talking about how the opposing players and coaches screwed things up, rather than rehashing mistakes the Lions made. There will surely be occasions this season in which we disagree with or criticize a coaching decision by Jim Schwartz or a poor read by Stafford. But one of the many reasons the Lions are playing so well right now is that they're no longer beating themselves on the sideline or on the field.
But back to Johnson and Stafford for at least one more paragraph. Perhaps one of the most important lessons a NFL quarterback can learn is what "open" really is. Rookie QBs often make the mistake of not throwing to a receiver if there's a defender near him. But with a beast like Johnson, he's open even when a defensive back is running right along with him. Stafford has enough confidence in his arm that he probably thought he could complete those throws anyway. But he's learned that just slinging the ball to Johnson is often enough.
The 40-yard pass that Stafford completed to Johnson may have been the most spectacular plays we've seen in a decade from players wearing Lions uniforms. Stafford was backpedaling, throwing off his back foot, yet launched the ball 40 yards down the field. On the receiving end, Johnson bent backwards, practically looking upside down to see the ball into his hands.
It may have been the closest thing we'll ever see to a Willie Mays catch in football. And it may have been the biggest pass play a Lions quarterback and receiver have made since Gus Frerotte hit Germane Crowell for a 57-yard completion on 4th-and-26 in a 1999 win over the St. Louis Rams.
In their three victories, the Lions have won in three different ways. Against the Buccaneers, Detroit built a big lead and then hung on for a 27-20 win. Their 48-3 victory over the Chiefs was every bit as dominant as the score indicates. And on Sunday, we saw how the Lions could respond when falling far behind. On the road, playing in a stadium where they've suffered countless failures, they came back for a huge overtime win.
How many of you freaked out and/or gave up when the Lions fell behind 20-0? But how many of you felt like this team could stage a comeback and still grind out a win? Just having those feelings (and typing those questions) shows how much things are changing. How much fun is this?